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Farmers are hoping to make high tech agriculture more accessible with new bill

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Precision agriculture helps farmers use fewer resources and get better results. To work, it needs lots of data and cutting-edge technology. But the high-tech machines are expensive, and getting them connected to existing equipment isn't always easy. With the farm bill on the docket in Washington this year, some farmers are hoping lawmakers can help them out. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler reports.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Lee Nunn has the first tractor his grandfather ever bought sitting at his farm about an hour east of Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUMBLING)

FOWLER: And it still runs like a dream.

LEE NUNN: This was the first model of tractor back in the day - and I take it it's 1968 - had an automatic cigarette lighter in 1968. And his people thought that was the best thing in the absolute world.

FOWLER: But a few rows down is what Nunn drives today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE SPUTTERING)

FOWLER: Aside from heated seats and air conditioning, cigarette lighter not included, this new behemoth is outfitted with cutting-edge technology. It comes from a growing field in ag that marries tech innovation with good old-fashioned farming, says Eric Elsner with the University of Georgia.

ERIC ELSNER: Precision agriculture, in its most broadest terms, would be a system whereby we can deliver exactly what a set of plants needs when they need it - no more, no less.

FOWLER: Practically speaking, for Lee Nunn, that means GPS guides the steering of his tractor, and the equipment it pulls has sensors that sends data to the cloud and into the palm of his hand.

NUNN: It records everything that it's doing - speed, direction, what type of seeds I'm planning, how many seeds I'm planting per acre, per foot, the depth of the seeds.

FOWLER: Nunn has used tech on his 1,500 acres for a decade now and has seen things have come a long way.

NUNN: The satellites and the GPS, just like in your cars and things, was not nearly as accurate as it is now. The accuracy of the GPS is one thing that amazes me. This tractor can drive itself within an inch of itself every year on the same line.

FOWLER: But he says there are barriers to more widespread adoption. If you can afford the expensive equipment, spotty broadband can make it hard to access the data. And if you've got the internet speed, these ag tech innovations don't always play nice across different machines or brands - kind of like trying to use an Apple cord to charge an Android phone. In ag, that's owning a green tractor from one company and wanting to add a red plow from a different one. Nunn says you can't really make that work without getting a third party to help connect them.

NUNN: To be honest, that's just another added cost, another added headache, another added, you know, piece of electrical equipment on a piece of farm equipment. So what we would like to see is some sort of standard to where all these different manufacturers of pieces of equipment will seamlessly operate together.

FOWLER: That's something that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree on. They're also pushing for grants to make precision ag tech more affordable. Georgia's Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune have a bill that would create standards for precision agriculture. It also has incentives for companies to make sure those green tractors and red plows work better together. Both farmers and lawmakers hope that legislation makes it into the omnibus farm bill later this year. For NPR News, I'm Steven Fowler in Madison, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOFFEE AND KANDY SONG, "LOTS OF FUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.